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Governing the Internet: The Model is the Message

In 1964, Canadian scholar Marshall McLuhan famously wrote, “The medium is the message.” This phrase popped into my head last week as I listened to the opening speakers at the Internet Governance Forum in Nairobi.

McLuhan meant that the form in which a message is delivered—the medium—embeds itself in the meaning of the message. The medium influences how the message is perceived and understood and is therefore inseparable from the message itself.

What does this have to do with the Internet?

The bottom-up, multi-stakeholder governance model that currently governs the Internet enables decisions to be made at ‘Internet speed’, and has allowed it to thrive. Any other governance model would NOT have resulted in the Internet becoming the incredible economic and social force it has become. The success of the Internet is inextricably linked to the way in which it is run.

The organic mix of public and private entities at the regional, national and international levels that are at the heart of governing the Internet is the reason why the Internet became a success—it ensures that those who have a stake in the success of the Internet are the ones making decisions about its future. The model also ensures that those decisions are made in a manner that is in keeping with the dynamic nature of the Internet.

This model for governing the Internet is also behind its democratising power, and its ability to promote innovation, human rights and social and economic development. On the other hand, countries in which the Internet is blocked, controlled or shut down by governments often have poor human rights records and their populations cannot benefit fully from what the Internet has to offer.

Therefore, I am disheartened by the thought of what the Internet, and indeed the world’s economic and social situation, would look like if a different model, for example, a multi-lateral model—such as is employed at many United Nations agencies like the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)—were used. That model has worked well in the past for different industries. Case in point, the ITU (which has been around for more than a century), has ensured a robust and functional telecommunications network globally.

However, what would the Internet be like if a multi-lateral body were in charge? As history shows, it is often not the issues of the day that influence the discussions at these institutions. Rather, multi-lateral treaty-based organizations are typically hierarchical, top-down bodies that exist in a hyper-political environment. As such, they are susceptible to political intervention, influence and trade-offs, are slow-moving, and involve decision-makers so far removed from the implications of their choices that discussions, and resulting policies, can be very challenging. This is demonstrated with Dr. Hamadoun Touré‘s comments at ITU’s Plenipotentiary last year.

As numerous nations and multi-lateral bodies continue to push their agendas, Internet governance has been the subject of quite a few media stories lately, and not just by the core Internet-focused bloggers. While it concerns me to hear about the push by some to move the Internet away from its current model, it is important that these issues be discussed and debated openly.

These discussions should take place not only in the media, but in fora like the Internet Governance Forum, where certain states like India, Brazil and South Africa were openly questioned last week about their proposal (.PDF) to create a new body (within the UN structure) to oversee the Internet.

Their proposal received cross constituency, real-time feedback from the stakeholders and experts at the multi-stakeholder IGF. In essence, feedback was provided on a major proposal in a timely manner by the very organizations, nations and experts that the proposal affected. This is the multi-stakeholder model at its best.

The irony was not lost on many of us that the very model the group set to dismantle was the model that proved its power in this discussion. Such a fulsome and timely debate would likely not have happened in a multi-lateral treaty-based environment.

With apologies to McLuhan, with regard to Internet governance, the model IS the message.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not arguing that one governance model is better than any other. What I am saying is that each model has its place, and the model that suits the Internet is the multi-stakeholder one. There is room for both models, and each has its role to play—let’s just make sure we put the right model in the right place.

By Byron Holland, President and CEO of CIRA

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I hesitate to leap to the defence Jeremy Malcolm  –  Oct 6, 2011 3:03 AM

I hesitate to leap to the defence of IBSA, because there are a lot of problems with their proposal and the way they presented it.  But it isn’t quite accurate to say that they are trying to dismantle the multi-stakeholder model.  The idea of a new, yet to be fully defined, high-level process or institution for Internet governance would be as a complement to the IGF, not a replacement for it.

The need for such a body is that there are some areas of Internet policy for which there is no existing body to take decisions at a global level, such as those that ICANN makes for DNS, that WIPO makes for copyright, and so on.  Indeed the IGF’s constitutional document, the Tunis Agenda, speaks directly about the need for such a process, incorporating the full involvement of all stakeholders in their respective roles, which it terms “enhanced cooperation”.

The IBSA model is one proposal - though yet an imperfect one - to implement this.  As such, it is very welcome, because most other stakeholders have been happy to sweep “enhanced cooperation” under the rug.  The end result of doing so is that outside of the few narrow issue areas such as those mentioned above, there remains no global policy-setting body or process for Internet governance.

You may say that we don’t need such a body of process, but this is really a cop-out because in default of one, policy will still be set, just in an uncoordinated fashion by national governments and powerful businesses.  Much better to have an open and transparent process for all stakeholders to a contribute to policy setting.

The IGF is the lower-level part of this (limited to discussion and development of policy options or - perhaps eventually - recommendations), and the IBSA proposal is suggested as the higher-level one (for taking decisions from amongst those policy options).  So whilst we may agree with the specifics of the IBSA proposal (eg. that it requires a new UN body), let’s not misunderstand what it represents.

Well said Jay Daley  –  Oct 7, 2011 1:45 AM

Well said Byron.  It should now be clear to everyone, as you’ve eloquently argued, that it is the model that has brought the success of the Internet rather than the model being some irritating, quaint anachronism that needs to be disposed of.

It would be useful to highlight that it is not just ICANN that has this model but also the IETF (where the real work is done!), ISOC, the RIRs and many of the ccTLDs.  The model is so important that a threat to the model is a threat to the Internet itself.  It is the model that makes ICANN and all these other institutions what they are and without it they have no role.

A final point.  While the threat to the Internet from some regimes is real and growing, the greater danger is from those within who are prepared to label key elements of the model as less effective and then abandon them.  If we are not wary then we will end up with a model that it is claimed is multi-stakeholder, bottom-up and principle-driven but in reality is quite the opposite.

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